The J. Seward Johnson life-like statues that line the Carmel Arts & Design District have long been controversial. Some people say they are creepy, others just a waste of money.
But there’s another glaring problem in the eyes of Carmel’s marginalized communities: the statues are almost all white. Of Seward’s 16 already-installed statues in Carmel, only one contains people of color.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard is asking city council to approve $180,000 to fund the purchase of two new statues — one showing a woman of Indian descent and the other depicting a Black girl swinging around a stop sign.
It would be a small victory for those pushing for inclusion in Carmel but some residents say it’s not enough in a city where all elected leaders and department heads are white. Meanwhile, 84% of the city’s population is white, according to the most recent 5-year census estimate average.
“For me, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” Ti’Gre McNear, a Black Carmel resident who serves as the city reform chair for Carmel Against Racial Injustice told IndyStar. “It is not all that’s needed. There are so many other steps and so many other things that are much more important and imperative to the growth of the city.”
Plus, while the statues themselves might be more diverse, the artists doing the work won’t necessarily be, which McNear is concerned about.
When Carmel Against Racial Injustice was formed this summer, its leaders had a list of things they wanted to accomplish, including diversifying the statues in Carmel.
But Dan McFeely, a spokesman for the city, said city leaders had been discussing acquiring sculptures depicting people of various backgrounds “for a long time.” He said the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Human Relations had made the suggestion as well.
“At the time we began purchasing these, there weren’t many J. Seward Johnson statues of minorities available,” McFeely said in a statement to IndyStar. “It just wasn’t done.”
Carmel already has five statues in storage from J. Seward Johnson awaiting placement but none depict people of color. Nor were there enough funds left over in his budget to purchase more statues this year. Therefore, Brainard needs council approval or has to wait until 2021 when his arts fund is replenished. Brainard’s proposed 2021 budget calls for $1.34 million for support for the arts.
If approved, the city will pay $75,000 for the purchase and shipping of the statue of the girl, titled “Waiting to Cross.” In line with the other statues in Carmel, that one was created by J. Seward Johnson, who was white.
Once acquired, it will sit in the Arts & Design District near the Monon Trail.
For the second statue, Carmel plans to commission a sculpture depicting someone of Indian descent either standing or sitting on a bench for $105,000, including shipping. The city is working with the Seward Johnson Atelier.
Councilor Sue Finkam, who introduced the bill to council, said Brainard planned to work with the Indian community in Carmel to create one.
McNear said she viewed the statues as a small victory, but she questioned why Black people were not involved in the creation of the statue depicting a Black girl. Plus, she said, it looks outdated and some people viewed her face as creepy.
“While we feel like this is a step, progress for inclusion, we don’t want it to be patronizing,” McNear said. “Let us be involved. Give an African American artist an opportunity to represent what African Americans look like currently.”
The city is not leaning on the talents or creativity of these marginalized communities, she said.
Brainard was not at the meeting to help introduce the ordinance, but did not indicate any plans to change course on the statues in a statement to IndyStar.
“We have received input from individuals in both the Indian and African communities,” Brainard said, “and we plan to engage them again as we continue to search for additional diverse public art.”
Council was slated to vote on the ordinance on Monday evening, but instead sent it to a committee at the request of Miles Nelson, the lone Democrat on council. He referenced McNear’s concerns.
“I just feel that it would be important and meaningful to encourage members of the community, specifically the African American community, to participate in this,” Nelson said. “I would have concerns that if we approve the money (tonight), that maybe then we wouldn’t have control of ultimately what statue is selected.”
Other council members argued against getting involved in the art selection process.
“I think it sets a dangerous precedent for us to be picking the artwork and for us to become art committees,” said Council Member Adam Aasen. “I didn’t go to art school. I don’t think the city council was elected to be the art selection committee.”
The ordinance will be discussed in committee before it goes back to council for a vote.
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.